'Blair has to take it on the chin': elite soldiers on the Iraq war

They heard the American guns first – roaring, rattling rounds of 30mm cannon fire sprayed by two A10 Thunderbolts.

When the blue-on-blue attack on 28 March 2003 was over, the Household Cavalry counted one soldier dead, four injured (one very seriously) and two armoured reconnaissance vehicles destroyed. Two Iraqi civilians waving white flags were also killed. One soldier, 18-year-old Trooper Chris Finney, went on to receive the George Cross for his bravery in attempting to save colleagues trapped in their blazing vehicle.

The frontline reconnaissance unit – part of 16 Air Assault Brigade – crossed into Iraq on the first day of the invasion, 20 March 2003. Their job was to secure locations before other troops moved in behind them. In Iraq’s southern desert, they came under attack from Iraqi artillery and fought with T55 tanks, but it was under US fire that they took their first casualty.

Days after that tragedy, on 1 April, the squadron sustained further losses when one of its Scimitar armoured reconnaissance vehicles overturned into a ditch, killing its gunner and seriously injuring its commander, who later died in hospital.

Aside from Finney, three other D Squadron soldiers were decorated for bravery, giving the small unit of 105 men the largest clutch of medals among all British forces who fought in Iraq during the invasion phase.

Trooper Jo Woodgate also survived the A10 attack but went on to be killed by a grenade in Afghanistan in 2010.

D Squadron returned to the UK in July 2003. The Guardian tracked down some of its members 13 years later.

Capt Reg Carney was the regimental quartermaster during the invasion. It was his job to chase down supplies and equipment, plugging the gaps as best he could. After 34 years in the army, he left as a major and is now the general manager at Dallas Burston polo club in Warwickshire.

Tony Blair has refused to accept that we were ill-equipped when we went into Iraq. We were short of desert camouflage uniforms but also basic necessities like toilet rolls. There were even a few days where we had to go and borrow rations from the Americans. That’s when they started calling us the Borrowers. I scrounged 20-odd pairs of boots from them. It would be interesting to see the reports we used to send back to Windsor because they listed what we needed: ‘We are short of road wheels today,’ ‘We haven’t got enough track,’ ‘Can we get more NBC suits?’ ‘Engine oil is getting low.’ I even got my wife to go on to the internet to buy GPSs and send them out to us because we had none.

“We had lots of problems with our vehicles, they broke down and we didn’t have the parts. We didn’t have supplies and that was across the board from toilet rolls, to batteries, everything.

“It was Tony Blair’s fault that we went out there not properly equipped, and if you go away somewhere ill equipped and not ready for something or not fully briefed or not understanding, then things go wrong. I think Tony Blair should be held accountable. How many soldiers have been held accountable for things that happened out there? He put us in that predicament – it was his view that put us in harm’s way. Our guys put their lives on the line for their country and now it turns out it was wasted life. Life is precious and I am really mad about that.”

Trooper Chris Finney received the George Cross, the highest award for gallantry, for trying to get fellow crew members out of their burning vehicle. Now 32, he lives in Devon with his wife and three daughters. He owns and runs Goonhavern garden centre in Cornwall.

“This is probably a very unpopular opinion, I know, but I kind of have a bit of sympathy for old Blair, actually. Bearing in mind that when all this happened I was just an 18-year-old scrote – I was not, and I still am not, a politician and I can’t understand all the big words, but I think if you put just about any other politician in his seat at that moment in time I think most of them would have done the same thing. He was given duff information and people place so much importance on the special relationship that I can see why he went that route – that’s not to say that I agree with him. I was actually very proud to be there, part of my unit and the wider British army. I think we behaved in a professional and dignified manner – there was certainly no suggestion of any sort of wrongdoing from us, you didn’t hear about us torturing people. I think we did the job to the best of our ability and we were very proud of what we were trying to do.”

Trooper Sven Carlson was a gunner with D Squadron. Now 34, he has three children and is studying engineering at Durham University.

“Tony Blair just ran straight in and did what he wanted. You’ve got to wonder what sort of motivation he had for wanting to go in so quickly without exhausting every other method beforehand. When we were out there, there was an American fast air team embedded with us and they said: ‘It’s just for oil, we want the oil and that’s it.’ Tony Blair was like the bully’s best friend – Bush was standing there intimidating them all and he was standing behind going, ‘Yeah, we’re going to come and get you.’

“I feel let down and annoyed because war changes people for ever doesn’t it? Nobody is the same after something like that, especially with the losses that we had and people getting seriously injured. It’s a kick in the face. We went out there because we thought we were doing something good and liberating people because they were oppressed by a massive dictator and really now it comes out it wasn’t that at all.”

Rich Hull is the father of L/Cpl of Horse Matty Hull who died in the blue-on-blue attack on 28 March 2003.

“Matthew had been to two or three conflicts before and this was the only one where I asked him not to go. I said: ‘I’ve got a funny feeling about this one, don’t go.’ But he had to, it was his job and unfortunately he didn’t come back. We should never have gone to war and I thought that at the time. I didn’t think it had been left long enough for things to get sorted before they went in.

“Matthew would have been disgusted. If he could have gone in on a peace thing and tried to sort it out without going to war first, I think he would have been happy with that. But going in straight to war on the basis of what we know now, I think he would have thought it was absolutely ludicrous. And as for sending them in without all the right gear? It’s crazy. My son got killed in friendly fire and it’s unbelievable they sent him in without the Americans knowing all the vehicles and their identifications before they went into combat.”

Trooper Elliot Cooper was 23 during the invasion and left the army in 2010. He is a father of three and works as a warehouse manager.

“We never saw any real resistance where we were. No one had this massive army for us to fight. I pretty much went anti-war after it all. When we came back I asked if I could go to the ceremonial side at Knightsbridge because I didn’t want to go back to war again for this government or this country. I became a farrier so that I could not be deployed back. We lost people out there for no reason – in a blue-on-blue, too, and so my opinion of the Yanks went down a bit. It was a real eye opener for me. It was just war after war after war to take over these territories to then just move out and it all just gets taken back again. I still don’t know what the point of it was.

“Tony Blair has got to take it on the chin and accept that he thought, ‘We’ll tell them stuff that’s not true, they’ll put it in the papers and we’ll go on that and see how it pans out.’ He’s done alright for himself over the last couple of years. That’s why I like Corbyn, he’s not for himself.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Audrey Gillan, for The Guardian on Friday 8th July 2016 16.26 Europe/London

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